Paani Temple of Pandrethan – Finest Kashmiri Architecture Lost in Depths of Time

Paani Temple of Pandrethan – Finest Kashmiri Architecture Lost in Depths of Time

Discover unknown trails of Kashmir with our travel expert Reetwika Banerjee

Connect her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee

 

Though we had initially planned for a high hill adventure for the next two days, but due to bad climatic conditions we were strictly advised to postpone our travel plan. So, we decided to utilize the day by visiting another excellence of ancient Hindu architecture in the Kashmir valley – the Meruvardhanaswami Temple of Pandrethan, commonly referred as Paani Temple. ‘Paani’ is Hindi or Kashmiri language means ‘water’. Though originally it was all dry, but centuries of weathering have created a pool around it, submerging more than half of the construction inside water which sources its exciting forename. It is one of the legacy temples of India known for its subtle symmetrical architecture.

 

Paani Temple of Pandrethan

 

The site is located pretty close to Srinagar, hardly five kilometres by road towards Sonawar. We hired a local tourist taxi (Maruti Suzuki Alto) for the half day trip. Surprisingly, cost was quite cheaper compared to other hot tourist destinations as not many people visit the place.

 

Scenic Road Drive to Pandrethan along Jhelum River

 

We started around ten o’ clock. Packing a light breakfast (corn sandwich and boiled eggs), all three of us voyaged along the Jhelum River. I must say here, a handful of striking visuals that repeatedly caught my attention throughout our Kashmir trip and today too it was not an exception. Among the tons of wall ads, one just cannot ignore the green coloured advertisements of Khyber Cement with an equally catchy tagline ‘Cement-e-Kashmir’.

 

 

On a lighter note, Dr. Bengali seems to be the one-stop solution to all your medical needs while in Kashmir. Your eyes just cannot miss those bright red graffiti. But one thing I should admit, wherever you glance, you spot a popular movie scene be it from ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’, ‘Aap Ki Kasam’, ‘Mission Kashmir’, ‘Betaab’, ‘Sikander’, ‘Lamhe’, ‘Hero The Spy’, ‘Haider’ or any of those recent blockbusters. The list will be countless.

 

 

The most remarkable of all was the risk of private talking in Bengali in entire Kashmir; because every second Kashmiri can speak Bengali and knows Kolkata better than a Bengali. Even there were few shops with Bengali hoardings. Over the years the Kashmiri shawl merchants often visit Bengal in winter months and personally hawk their items visiting houses in almost every dead lane of the state. They highly esteem Bengalis lucky for their businesses.

 

Bengali hoarding at a Pandrethan shop

 

Coming back to our Pandrethan trip, the riverside road offered us a scenic yet rustic drive and it took us exactly half an hour to reach the temple premises. There was a small parking area surrounded by lofty chinars just off the road from where an eye-level pyramidal dome was faintly visible, supposedly Meruvardhanaswami Temple’s antique cupola.

 

Parking off the main road at Pandrethan

 

Glimpse of the pyramidal cupola amidst green chinars

 

The moment we reached there, an old man, dressed in traditional Kashmiri phiran and poots, welcomed us inside. He was not a formal guide, but must be a passionate warden for sure. It was great to see such a precious archaeological site being maintained so well. No signs of littering observed during our visit. The main shrine is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Surprisingly, the neither the temple nor the deity name was not mentioned anywhere around. There was only one blue board portraying it as ‘Ancient Temple’. Not sure why the original name was withheld.

 

‘Ancient Temple’ blue board outside the Paani Temple

 

While taking a tour around the boundary of the temple, with great devotion, the old gentleman narrated us many legends about this place. Some parts of which I found to have historical basis, but perhaps most of it was a thrilling mythical anecdote.

 

Paani Temple ruins at Pandrethan

 

Kashmiris say that the temple was originally founded by a royal minister named Meru Vardhan of the then Hindu King Pravarsena I during early 6th century A.D. from where it derives its original name – Meruvardhanaswami Temple. He also beautified the place raising various palatial buildings (often called as Viharas in local language). Pandrethan flourished as the royal capital until mid-10th century A.D., until shifted to Srinagar later. It also finds significant references in Kalhana’s epic account of Kashmir – Rajtarangini, where he mentioned about this place as Puranadishthana or ‘old city’. However, as per British accounts this temple was built by King Partha in somewhere between A.D. 913 to 921 A.D. An uncanny fire devastated entire Pandrethan in 960 A.D. but this surprisingly this temple survived the fire with no harm. Unfortunately, today nothing noteworthy exists at Pandrethan except the ruins of this classic temple.

 

 

In those days, Jhelum River (earlier name Vitasta) was hardly a mile away towards south-east. The groundwater level being shallow here, water percolates through the natural seepages and accumulates around the temple creating a freshwater pool. However, through ages people believe that it’s Lord Shiva, who through His divine charm locked Vitasta around Him; eventually the water is considered to be holy even today.

 

Holy spring water of Vitasta

 

Whatever be its mythological origin, but the architecture of this temple is truly the finest of all Kashmiri edifices. An artistic stone temple of pyramidal structure, it has an ornate masonry ceiling divided into two segments – the upper one is surmounted on a carved pillar while the lower portion resembles a patterned lotus. Centuries ago when trigonometry and geometry were unknown theories, strength of materials a distant topic, cement and modern measurement tools were not invented, what led to the erection of such a perfect assembly is truly an epitome of architectural brilliance.

 

Paani Temple sunken in depths of time and water

 

As per the old man, the inner wall reliefs depict many ancient mythological tales of Lord Shiva and the ceiling exhibits supreme scientific excellence made of nine stone blocks, four resting on a set of another four blocks supported by a couple of diagonal lintels, four intersecting tetragons and a pair of internally overhanging eaves – all coinciding to a central conical tower which from outside closely resembles an inverted lotus. Sadly, due to water clogged on all sides, we could not witness the Kashmiri masterpiece in its full exhibit through our own eyes.

 

Small relief on the frontal porch

 

 

Externally what we saw that the temple is built on a quadrangular podium surrounded by a natural spring-fed pool of increasing dimensions. The depth of water would be at least three feet, if not more. The cupola is multi-layered comprising of three bands supported one below the other, increasing the girth of pyramidal base to ensure increased strength. An array of semi-circular symmetric arches further embellishes the outer walls. But at present only the pyramidal roof and the main doorway are partially visible. A small relief on the frontal entry porch could be seen. Probably it had been left partly excavated by the archaeological department to prevent any damage to its brittle walls, which got wedged inside the ground over years.

 

Submerged inside the ground over years

 

Fishes playing in the pool

 

The turquoise colour of the water created a mystic milieu at the very first sight. There were many fishes playing in the shallow water. The temple is almost sunken in the depths of time and water now, jamming the door forever. It is almost impossible for any visitor to enter inside without a professional shallow bottom diver.

 

Mystic turquoise waters of the pool

 

The view of underwater temple with a primeval stone crown left a more electrifying impact on us. Feeding balls of Atta to those lovely fishes, we proceeded towards our next stopover, Manasbal Lake.

 

Feeding the fishes in the pool

At the Twin Temple Ruins of Awantipora

A personal travel tale by Reetwika Banerjee

Connect her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee



 

After a tiring day trip to Anantanag yesterday, morning began late for me. Having some light breakfast with samosa, puffed rice and coffee, we headed on to our next destination – Awantipora, which houses an array of Hindu temples from 9th century A.D. We had already booked a tourist cab through Abdul Sheikh, the same operator who dropped us from Pahalgam. He sent a new driver for the trip. His name was Bilal, belonging to historical Awantipora.

 

Temple Ruins of Awantipora

 

It is a small Nagar Panchayat (urban council equivalent to Municipality) on the NH44 highway, geographically located in the Pulwama District of Jammu & Kashmir. The small town is well known for its ancient Hindu temples constructed during the reign of King Avanti Varman, a Hindu ruler belonging to the Utpala Dynasty. He was known for his strong patronage towards art, literature and architecture. The two most famous temples of Utpala Dynasty – Avantishwar and Avantiswami – were built by Avanti Varman, dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu respectively. With time, the place gradually got its name Avantipura (named after the ruler), presently spelled as Awantipora.

 

Road Drive to Awantipora from Srinagar

 

Our new cab was waiting for us since 7.30am in front of our hotel gate. However we started quite late today, close to ten. Distance was hardly 30 kilometres from Srinagar, so we commenced our day trip relaxingly. After a few internal road crossings, we got onto the national highway. Snow caps at a distance, green paddies, straight road – such a perfect canvas!

 

 

The moment we reached NH44, discovered on both the sides of the road millions of timber pieces, about two feet long, stacked in clusters and a green flushed road drilling through the chinars. The raw wooden clubs were piled one above the other, yet to be finally processed. One generally doesn’t get to see such scenes in bustling metros.

 

Heaps of Kashmiri Willow Bats by roadside

 

Bilal reminded this was the place known for manufacturing world’s best cricket bats made of Kashmiri willow wood. Also finest quality saffron is reaped nearby too. While he took a sudden bio break, I utilized the time to purchase an indigenous cricket bat made of much coveted Kashmiri willow wood from a roadside shop, at an unbelievably low price. Recurring sights of such timber heaps continued for miles together as we kept passing through Sangam and Bijbehara villages until Awantipora.

 

Miles of wooden bats under processing

 

The beautiful temple town lies on the banks of Jhelum River, popularly known as Vitasta River among the natives. Historians say, due to massive earthquakes, the construction of majority of Awantipora temples had tumbled down centuries ago. But the sites are now protected and duly maintained by Archaeological Survey of India.

 

 

We took our first stop at Awantipora’s 800 A.D. ancient Vaishnava centre titled Avantiswami Temple. Bilal parked the car by the side of the main road and directed us to cross the highway and walk a little up to the temple entrance. The approach road being narrow, he could not take the SUV inside.

 

Entry Fee at Awantiswami Temple

 

Floral Decoration at the Temple Entrance

 

 

Following his guidelines, we reached the temple gate. Entry fee was only Rs. 5 per head (for Indians) and a nominal camera fee was also charged for non-commercial photography inside the premises. The entrance was beautifully decorated with bright red roses, sad to find the temple in complete ruins though. The ceilings had collapsed, only remnants of ornamented stone pillars stand today with stooping facades. The main shrine was Vaikuntha Vishnu placed on a two-tiered granite courtyard surrounded by porched walls. We walked up to the centre from western side, taking a flight of stairs. One striking aspect about the temple was that the pillars were decorated on all sides resembling Greek styles. Also the main shrine was fortified by subsidiary shrines of other Hindu deities on all four corners of the courtyard.

 

Awantiswami Temple 

 

Vestiges of Awantiswami Temple 

 

A flight of stairs to the main courtyard

 

Spending almost an hour amidst the sculptured reliefs and intricate stone carvings, we drove to the Avantishwar Temple, located at Jawbrari hardly within a few hundred metres from the Avantiswami Temple. There was also a famous Darga just beside the temple complex. On the other side, the view of the mountains at the temple ruin’s backdrop was eye catching.

 

Fallen Stone Pillars

 

Intricate stone carvings

 

Darga beside Avanti temples

 

Both the temples appeared almost like twins to my inexperienced eyes except that the main deity of Avantishwar Temple was Lord Shiva. Otherwise, the two edifices bore stunning similarities both structurally as well as ornamentally. Here too, the idol used to be at the centre of a paved quadrangular platform bounded by colonnaded porticoes. People say, Lord Shiva was depicted as a stone image in this temple, however today nothing exists inside the main chamber. Only a rectangular plinth with black granite stairs and collapsed pillars could be found.

 

Avantishwar Temple

 

Central Quadrangular Plinth

 

Stairs to Main Courtyard

 

Structural relics and ornamented stone walls

 

Same Darga from Avantishwar Temple

 

Little afar these twin temples, Bilal also took us to the ruins of few Hindu prayer halls built by Emperor Lalitaditya from the 1st century A.D., most of which had been excavated by Rakhaldas Banerjee and Dayaram Sahni. An unmaintained lake with wild roses around it caught most of our attentions.

 

Wild roses inside temple complex

 

Near Awantipora, we broke for lunch at a Punjabi dhaba, seemed to be opened newly. I loved their kitchen – it was open and at the ground level. There was an old Punjabi gentleman sitting with his son at the kitchen, busy preparing tea. Seeing us stopping at his dhaba, both of them approached us very cordially as if we were their personal guests.

 

Emperor Lalitaditya’s Temple Ruins

 

Ordering Alu paratha, pickle and cardamom tea, we waited at one of those blue plastic tables outside the kitchen. From them we got to know, the old man was an ex-army official, who opened this dhaba as a post retirement venture. Within a few months tourists started pouring in. Eventually all his three sons now assist him in operating it as a family business. Their amicable welcome created an immediate intimacy with the family. There was a small building attached to the kitchen, fairly visible from where we were sitting, the place where they stay and the dhaba kitchen was common to their home as well. It became evident when we found that along with our Alu parathas, they prepared the same for their lunch too. They also fed our driver Bilal as a goodwill gesture. The kind of hospitality the entire family exhibited created a lasting impression in our memories.

 

 

Way back, Bilal accompanied us to a private orchard of walnut, pear and apple trees. He himself being from Awantipora took much interest to tell us more about his hometown. The day of our visit happened to be celebrated as the Baradin in Kashmir, during when many interesting rituals are performed in the name of Pir Baba and a local fair was also lined up to commence from evening. The celebrations seemed to be very ceremonious from the apparent excitement of Bilal as well as the Punjabi family.

 

 

Wish we could stay back till evening to witness the Baradin festival; but alas, we had a tough high hill drive planned for the next couple of days. A reposing night was the need of the hour.

Anantanag or Islamabad – Still a Controversy

A personal travel tale by Reetwika Banerjee

Connect her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee

 




After Pahalgam, we next headed towards Anantanag, the third largest district of our newly reformed state of Jammu & Kashmir; although during our visit Article 370 was still applicable. Till 1979, Anantanag comprised of the entire valley of South Kashmir which later split into Anantanag and Pulwama districts.

 

Bye Bye Pahalgam

 

We had hired a Tata Sumo for direct drop to Srinagar via Anantanag. The riverside road via NH501 was very scenic.

 

Road Trip to Anantanag via NH501

 

We stopped our car almost midway near a rafting point, as a mere watcher though. As we feel more comfortable being a watcher than an adventurist, like many others, we also posed for selfies with the rafters. Two buoys embarked in front of us. The ride seemed so scary to me. Thank God, I did not try it.

 

Our stop at Rafting Point

 

We traversed like 60 kilometres on road from Pahalgam which took us almost three hours to reach Anantanag town, the oldest district of Kashmir. The road trip included intermediate halts at Mattan and Martand Temple. The shrines were little inside from the highway which justifies the additional kilometres and time taken.

 

Highway drive to Anantanag

 

The place derives its name from a Sanskrit phrase – ‘Ananta’ meaning ‘Infinite’ and ‘Nag’ in Kashmiri language means ‘Water Stream’. Surprisingly, there are innumerable springs even today in and around the epicentre of Anantanag, the most significant being there at Mattan.

 

Driving through Mattan

 

A relic of antiquity, the district of Anantanag owes its etymology to the very spring that gushes out from a thin limestone rock fissure towards the northern side of this temple. Lots of fishes are reared in the accumulating water.

 

Anantanag Temple and Holy Stream

 

Another historically as well as religiously important village is Bawan where one can visit the Indernag Temple. It is often referred as Shri Raghunath Temple by local devotees and is presently maintained by the Nagbal Prabandhak Committee. The form of Lord Shiva worshipped here is five-faced Indernag to which the temple owes its name. Apart from the main shrine, idols of Vaishno Devi, Lakshmi Narayan, Lord Vishnu, Nav Durga forms of Devi Shakti and Bharat Mata holding Indian tricolour can also be found here.

 

Indernag Temple

 

Shri Raghunath Temple

 

Various shrines at Raghunath Temple

 

Bharat Mata Idol

 

Some 10 kilometres from Mattan, there is an ancient Sun Temple from the 1st century AD, popularly known as Martand Temple. This colossal edifice is believed to have been built by the famous Pandu King Ranaditya I. Earlier it was referred as ‘Pandu Koru’, which means the abode of Pandus. Located at the finest position in Kashmir, the ruins of this temple are mythically highly noteworthy which is also proven by its mentions in Mahabharata, Rajatarangini and many Hindu Puranas. Even in vestiges, this site still boasts of all the existing relics of Kashmir grandeur.

 

Martand Temple

 

The architecture comprises of a lofty stone structure with eighty four pillars, pyramidal roof, a centrally located prayer hall, couple of side chapels and a narrow disconnected wing on both sides. The even numeric figure 84 is held sacred by the early Hindu kings, being a multiple of seven (number of days in a week) with 12 (number of zodiac signs in astrology). The shrine is housed within an ornamented quadrangle surrounded by porticos and trefoil headed adjournments. The architecture is so scientific that throughout the daytime, sunlight falls on the Surya figurine.

 

 

History reveals that in early 15th century, Sultan Sikandar Butshikan tried to destroy this temple but the construction was so strong that it took him more than two years to damage it substantially. Majority of it has sunken into depths of time and earth, leaving hardly a forty feet perennial wall in ruins. But its stone walls and bold facades, towering over the grooved pillars of surrounding colonnade, establishes the structure’s daunting presence.

 

 

Centuries ago, when Mughal governor Islam Khan administered the Kashmir region, had built a beautiful garden at Anantanag. Later he also changed the name of the town to Islamabad in his own honour. According to our driver, though from the times of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad the old name has been reinstated, yet the local Muslims still prefer to call it Islamabad. As a testimony to his statement, he also showed us a few hoardings which clearly mention the place as Islamabad. Even today, there is a huge controversy whether to address this piece of land as Anantanag or Islamabad.

 

Islamabad inscribed hoardings at Anantanag market

 

Unlike Jammu, since Anantanag is primarily a Muslim dominated region, the temple seemed to have additional military protection right from its entrance. Also, it being an archaeological site, special protection is enforced by the authorities. However, the local market place was as busy as any of the other Indian district towns. However, the bright logo of J&K Bank was the most attractive visual in the entire market area.

 

Anantanag Central bus stand and surroundings

 

 

It was very close to the Anantanag central bus depot. Parking our car near the entry gate, we walked inside. The entrance was very simple compared to its historic existence. As we kept entering towards the inner complex, we observed numerous bunkers inside the premises, with vigilant military officials keeping a strict eye on the temple entrants. In fact they were allowing limited visitors at a time by locking and unlocking the temple gate every time any civilian entered or exited through the main entrance. Photography too was very restricted within the campus. In fact, that’s quite usual of its type in whole of Kashmir. What amazed me more was an army Jawan guiding us inside the temple. We were allowed to click photos only around the ruins of Martand.

 

It took us almost an hour to complete an intimate round of the heritage site. Coming back to our car, we had to trouble ourselves to locate its driver as our normal prepaid connections were blocked in Kashmir. By the time my husband could find him, I purchased a couple of Kashmiri shawls from a Muslim hawker at the temple gate who seemed to offer me genuine discounts.

 

 

It was close to 1pm when we resumed our drive to Srinagar. On way we crossed the world famous Green Tunnel. It’s a two kilometre stretch on Jammu Srinagar Highway comprising of an array of green poplar and chinar trees along the main road.

 

Green Tunnel

 

Though we heard that of late, the density has gone down drastically due to massive axing of the matured female trees causing serious pollen allergies, but the view of green flush was truly eye-catching. While passing through the Green Tunnel area, our driver took a tea break at a roadside dhaba. We also utilized the time to lock the stunning landscape with our camera.

 

 

Way back, as I offered the holy prasad of Martand Temple to our driver, he accepted it with such a warm smile that I could not imagine him to be a person from other religion. As he shared his business card with us at the end of our trip, we got to know his name – Abdul Sheikh. Our journey with him was very enjoyable, conversant and equally pleasing. An overall unique experience made our Anantanag visit truly memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

The 400 AD Mamaleshwar Temple of Pahalgam

A personal travel tale by Reetwika Banerjee

Connect her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee

 

After two consecutive strenuous treks, we wanted the third day at leisure. A big green board welcomed us to Pahalgam, the valley of shepherds. ‘Pahalgam’ literally means ‘The First Village’. It was perhaps named, as per a common mythical belief that during Lord Shiva’s way to Amarnath Cave, this small village served as His first resting point. It was here, a primeval Shiva temple is also found nearby (popularly known as Mamaleshwar Temple), He had performed a rigorous meditation for many days before heading onto His heavenly abode.

 

 

History of Pahalgam depicts an interesting trend with the change in kingdoms. Until 1346 AD, Pahalgam used to be a rich Hindu kingdom; later it was captured by the Muslims led by Shams-ud-Din. Centuries later during 1586, when Kashmir was conquered by Akbar, Pahalgam was seized under the Mughal Empire. After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, it was further attacked by the Afghans and was temporarily annexed to Afghanistan until Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh captured it from Ahmed Shah Durrani. In 1846, the British took it back from the Sikhs and sold to Jammu’s Hindu Maharaja Gulab Singh against a hefty sum. Till then, Pahalgam has a mixed lineage of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim residents. Presently it falls under the administration of Anantanag District of Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir.

 

 

The average elevation of Pahalgam is 9000 feet, located centrally in the Lidder Valley. It marks the confluence of two significant Trans Himalayan rivers – the Seshnag stream and Lidderwat. The hill station is quite popular among tourists, adventure seekers as well as pilgrims for the geographical significance, natural splendour and comfy weather. Just at a pebble throwing distance there was a river and if you look up from there were ranges of snow-peaks. You just need to carry a pocket camera to take snaps – wherever you click it’s bound to be the best one ever!

 

 

 

We had put up at Hotel Glacier right at the middle of the Mall Road. Though a budget hotel, but the view of Kolahoi Glacier and Lidder River from our room (#104 in first floor) was enthralling. Food, room conditions and overall hospitality were decent as per the rent paid.

 

 

There was a pony stand just behind our hotel from where we had hired our horses for Aru trek. Since the first rays of dawn, they start gathering at the assembly point emulating an alarm for the sleeping souls like us. Thanks to their neighs and dung odours, it did not let us doze beyond a limit.

 

 

A group of young folks had already reached the riverside, charging up for an adventurous rafting expedition. Little beyond the Lidder River, there was a helipad and we were lucky to sight a chopper during our stay.

 

 

Having a late breakfast, we decided to take a walk around Pahalgam town and visit the ancient temple we could see from our hotel window. It was around 11 o’ clock in the morning we started our walk to the famous 400 AD Mamaleshwar Temple nestled on top of a small hillock on the banks of Lidder.

 

 

The very touch of icy cold waters of the Himalayan stream left a divine impact.

 

 

 

Arguably, it is perhaps the smallest and oldest temple of Kashmir Valley. It was hardly a mile away from our hotel. The interesting name of the holy shrine was my principal interest of visit. Mythological legends say that Ganesha was appointed as the doorkeeper of this ancient temple to prevent admitting anyone inside, so that his father Lord Shiva can perform meditation without any earthly interruptions. Ganesha performed his duty so much of dedication that he did not even allow his mother Devi Parvati to enter the temple. That is why even today, during prayer time no ladies are allowed to enter the temple beyond a certain limit. Basically, ‘Mamal’ in Kashmiri means ‘do not enter’. An interesting notice board did catch our attention the moment we stepped in.

 

 

 

As per historical evidences, it was built by a Muslim ruler dating back to 4th century AD who had wreathed the entire temple and shrine with pure gold. However, later rulers invaded the gold and left it at its present state since centuries.

 

 

As we reached there, the strangest thing I discovered was a Muslim priest, offering prayers to the shrine on behalf of the Hindu devotees and distributing sacred prasad after the rituals. No shame to say, the hospitality we received from the Kashmiri people was quite contradictory to our preconceived notion about the state.

 

 

While walking back, we stopped at couple of Kashmiri shops selling almonds, black raisins, apricot, dry dates, saffron and other local products like pashmina, silk, blankets, leather items, wooden craftworks etc. Though we purchased a few items as memento, but most of the items were highly overpriced. Funniest thing was, everyone would ask you ‘Khush ho naa?’ (Are you happy) after demanding a hefty bill against petty service or product. Another striking aspect was, it’s very difficult to publicly discuss in Bengali at Pahalgam because every second Kashmiri can speak Bengali and knows Bengal better than a Bengali.

 

 

 

We came back to our hotel by 2pm and enjoyed a delicious meal contradictory to our expectations – Ghee Rice, Dal fry, Mixed veg with Chicken Rogan josh. We came across neighbouring hotel boarders who were having lunch at our restaurant, which was probably hinting at the dearth of food availability around. One thing we learnt during our short stay in Kashmir – Never order a non-veg dish at any Kashmiri restaurant unless you are comfortable with lamb and beef. Chicken preparations are mostly unpalatable, it is better to opt for vegetarian meals otherwise.

 

 

Post lunch, we had plans to take a sneak peek of the local market; but after such a wholesome meal, we could not make any other way than to bed. Waking up for coffee, we had it quickly before the frosty breezes chilled it. Dinner we kept light to let our stomach settle with the lunchtime spicy chicken. We preferred to order it from Food Point Restaurant near Prince Bakery. A lip-smacking sweet pan was the perfect finish.

 

 

Imminent stormy night tempted us for a noisy slumber. We jumped into depths of dream under the furry blanket.

 

 

 

 

 

Chandanwari – Where Lord Shiva denounced His Moon

A personal travel tale by Reetwika Banerjee

Connect her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee


We continued to Chandanwari from Hagoon along the same road. It’s a spectacular high-altitude countryside in Kashmir which serves as the gateway to Greater Himalayan Range. Situated at an altitude of around 10,000 feet above sea level, Chandanwari presents snow laden peaks against a caerulean canvas. Distance would be barely 14 kilometres but since the road comprises of very steep rise and falls, it took us almost three hours with an unprecedented road blockage enroute.

 

Bird’s eye view of Hagoon 

 

Spectacular views on way to Chandanwari

 

After a fifteen-minute uphill drive through the conifers, we took a quick halt at a point from where one can have a bird’s eye view of Hagoon. Oh! What a breath-taking landscape it was. Taking a few top shots of the valley we continued with the drive keeping Lidder River on our right. It’s the same road that Amarnath Yatra visitors traverse and after a day long trek, they camp overnight at Chandanwadi. Thus, it becomes a very significant stopover from Hindu pilgrimage perspective. Though we were in no mood to test our hiking capability but were definitely up to take a glimpse of its spectacular views.

 

Uphill drive to Chandanwari from Hagoon

 

According to Hindu mythology also, Chandanwari is a very significant juncture. It is said that before entering naked inside the Amarnath Cave with His consort Parvati, Lord Shiva had shredded all his possessions one by one on his way to the holy cavern. And as the religious beliefs go, Lord Shiva had removed the Moon from His hair bun (Jata) right here. Another school of theologists preach that little higher from Chandanwari, near Pissu Top, a fierce clash had happened between demi gods and ferocious daemons where divinity was falling short to evil. With the help of Lord Shiva’s super power, the demi gods could slaughter the highly outnumbered daemons and the heap of their corpses gave rise to the high mountains of this area which also closely resemble a seven headed mythical snake (often referred as ‘Seshnag’). Even today the standstill snow peaks, pine forests, chilly breezes and the gaudy Lidder waves stand as testimony to these mythological legends of erotic desire and blood battle, making Chandanwari a complete tourist destination.

 

At Chandanwari

 

The travel from Hagoon to Chandanwari is comparatively planar and can be accessed by road transport. It is full of cold streams, waterfalls and springs.  But the cliffside trajectory beyond Chandanwari is extremely narrow and equally steep which makes it accessible only on foot or by horse ride. The confluence of Amravati and Panjatarni Rivers entices with breath-taking views to visitors whoever complete the holy Yatra. Coupled with the sub-zero temperatures at night and lack of oxygen, it is however highly advised that only medically fit hikers should risk the further trek.

 

Entering into snow world

 

 

Game of Throne’s ‘The Wall’

 

As we soared higher, the cold breeze was slowly becoming frosty and after a sharp turn – we discovered ourselves in a snow world. Glaciers, immensely tall snow walls like Game of Throne’s ‘The Wall’, snowlines, snow mounds – everything around was only sparkling white snow, snow and snow! The snow carpet kept getting thicker as we ascended further. The window glass became insufficient to defend the ice-cold airstreams in no time.

 

 

During the upward drive, we came across numerous Indian Army officials, BSF and CRPF Jawans invigilating by the side of the road. After almost a fifty-minute drive, the pitch road slowly vanished and eventually became a thin high hill broken trail – truly taking the shape of a trekking route. We continued to scale the broken roads. After a hairpin bend a few meters below Chandanwari base camp our driver suddenly braked the car; stopping at a buzzy point, with so much noise and crowd around. We could also notice some of the cars which had overtaken us on way – they too had hoarded at the same point forming a long queue ahead.

 

Road blockage on way to Chandanwari

 

Bull dozers cutting the ice to make way

 

I pulled down the window glass and peeped out to gauge the reason of chaos. Due to an untimely hail storm last night, the remaining road till the base camp got fully covered with snow. Two bulldozers were struggling hard to cut way through the chunks of frozen ice sheet along the highway. Though it took me quite some time to comprehend the utter confusion, but I must appreciate the efforts undertaken by the Army and public works men who were continuously at work to make way for the civilians.

 

Playing with Ice

Secret water stream beneath the Glaciers

 

Photo shoots on way

 

It took more than two hours for the road clearance. But the adjoining beauty did not bore us even for a while. The remaining drive was hardly fifteen minutes. No one can walk on snow with normal shoes. The tempting snow beckoned us to hire a pair of gumboots, bringing back the child in us. We had lots of fun playing with the dry snow, throwing snow balls at each other, having snow fights and posing with the snow man at the end. Sledging is very famous in Chandanwari, but since we were running short of time, it was not wise for us to prolong the stay at such a high altitude beyond 3pm. Relishing a cup of steaming tea and freshly fried munchies, we started our descent.

 

At the summit of Chandanwari

 

On the way down near the site where it had clogged, we passed through at least ten to fifteen Indian military cargo vans, pilot cars and ambulances rushing uphill. The piercing sound of hooters echoed through the uncanny stillness prevailing around. By Lord Shiva’s blessings, wish everything was fine above.

 

 

 

Hagoon – The Picture-Perfect Valley

A personal travel tale by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee.

Connect with Reetwika on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee

 

After having a homely breakfast, the two of us geared up for a road trip to Hagoon and Chandanwadi. Booked a Maruti EECO tourist car through our hotel reception who agreed us to offer sightseeing to both the angelic valleys located between the Inner and Trans Himalayan Ranges – Pir Panjal and Zanskar. We were surprised when the taxi agreed to charge the standard Government rate whereas from previous experiences ours ears got used to their obvious tantrums. First time found such a peaceful public transport management anywhere in Kashmir. Definitely, the day started unexpectedly in a good note.

 

On way to Hagoon 

 

Archaeological excavations have confirmed human inhabitation in this belt since Neolithic age. The region had been reigned by Turks and Mughals since 15th Century AD. Indo-Turkish Army General Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat loved the ambiance of these vast meadows and named it Hagoon. Later during British Raj, it was further renamed to Hagan Valley.

 

Picturesque drive to Hagoon

Another notable ruler of this region was Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin – one of the greatest Kashmiri rulers of all times who governed the valley for more than four decades. His efforts towards promoting peace and harmony amongst Kashmir’s multicultural society was noteworthy.

 

Driving with a herd of sheep

 

View of Hagoon from top

 

Our driver introduced himself as Altaf, an ardent admirer of Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din. From him we came to know that it was under Sultan Ghiyas-ud-Din a social and cultural consciousness of Kashmiri inhabitants called ‘Kashmiriyat’ was established and righteously followed.

 

Finding us interested in the topic, Altaf took a proactive initiative of planning the day trip. He urged us to touch Hagoon first which in a way also falls enroute to Chandanwadi. The height of Hagoon is approximately 7900 feet. His logic was that Hagoon will acclimatize us before we take the high-altitude drive. It sounded logical, so we did not confront his proposal.

 

Glimpse of Hagoon

 

Hagoon alias Hagan Valley is a lush green grassland full of dense vegetation (now fenced like a hill park) at a kissing distance from the gurgling waters of Lidder, around 15 kilometres uphill from Pahalgam towards northeast. The road conditions were moderately good, and it took us around an hour to reach the entrance of Hagoon. Giving us 30 minutes visiting time at the spot, Altaf dropped us at the gate and went to park the car.

 

Hagoon entrance and adjoining car parking area

 

A walk inside the valley

 

As soon as we alighted from the taxi, a group of so-called guides swarmed around us. Thanks to our driver who alarmed us about it much before. We smartly walked inside the park following his direction. Above the main gate there was a huge hoarding where ‘Betaab Valley’ was written in bold as the name of the park. Now why the name ‘Betaab’? Well, the film shoots of Sunny Deol-Amrita Singh starrer 1983 blockbuster ‘Betaab’ was done here and hence the name. It was so disappointing to accept the Bollywood style naming of such a historic place as nowhere we could find the original name Hagoon or Hagan Valley written anymore. Innumerable other superhit movies were also shot here earlier like Aarzoo, Kashmir Ki Kali, Kabhie Kabhie, Silsila, Satte Pe Satta etc, still why Betaab was the decider is difficult to deduce.

 

Hagoon alias Betaab Valley

 

Whatever it is, the green splash of land is wonderfully maintained with superb scenic beauty all around. The waters of the river here is believed to have divine power and thus many of the natives still drink it without filtering. The adjacent forests comprise mostly of walnut, almond, saffron, willow, deodar, birch and pine trees.

 

Hagoon surroundings

 

The view of snow-capped mountains, Pir Panjal and Zanskar glaciers, colourful birds, vibrant flower beds, superfluous Lidder, ice cold streams bubbling beneath the frozen glaciers, an antique wooden footbridge, old-fashioned Kashmiri wooden benches – such a paradisiacal ambiance in totality. The panoramic vista makes it a must go place in Pahalgam circuit.

 

Wooden foot bridge

 

View of Zanskar and Pir Panjal peaks

 

Our thirty minutes were about to be over in a while. Though unwillingly, we had to hurry back as our high hill drive to Chandanwadi was awaiting next.

 

 

Aru – A Diorama of Tranquillity

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)


 

Have you heard of reclining horse? Well, Aru can bet a challenge to the age-old notion that a horse never sits until its last breath. We even met a sleeping horse!! Sounds unbelievable? Well, that’s the divinity of this splash of paradise on earth.

 

Sleeping horses of Aru

 

Many of us have been to Kashmir for tourism, nature photography, film shoots, pilgrimage, romantic getaways, mountaineering, bio tours, adventure sports and river rafting. But definitely Aru Valley does not fall in the most commonly visited hotspot list. Some important treks do originate from here, but believe me, it is much more than that. Serenity, tranquility, heavenliness – would sound synonymous to Aru once you land up at this pristine meadow.

 

Glimpses of Aru Valley 

 

This May to beat the summer heats, we had planned an offbeat Kashmir tour, visiting some of the off-the-wall tourist destinations in the Trans Himalayan circuit. Aru was our first stopover. Located at a road distance of around 12 kilometers from Pahalgam, Aru is a picturesque valley in the lap of Mt. Kolahoi (the highest peak in this part), with a visibility of more than a kilometer during summer and spring time. The elevation ranges approximately from 8000 to 12,000 feet above sea level and houses innumerable endangered biodiversity, flora and fauna. Though during winter months it remains covered in snow, it is relatively soothing round the year with an average temperature of around 11 to 15 degree Celsius. Surrounded by deodar, birch, pine and other alpines, Aru offers a mystic green beauty amidst snow.

 

Pahalgam t o Aru

 

Hiring horses from Pahalgam taxi stand

 

Reaching Pahalgam was not very difficult by road. After checking in at one of the mall road hotels, we marched for the mesmerizing horse ride of 12 kilometers. Private taxis were available from the Pahalgam taxi stand, but we were in a mood of expedition. We hired two strong ponies accompanied by three young men (supposedly our guides) for the hike.

 

Aru Trek on Horse Back

 

They took us through a forested shortcut, passing by a broken footbridge over the foaming Lidder. We took a fifteen minutes break beside the river, opened our thermos flask and relished the moments with a cup of coffee. Ever since we halted, the snow melted stream was beckoning me for a chill. Its cold splashes soothed my tired feet like natural healer.

 

Fallen footbridge on way

Break beside Lidder River

 

After roughly a 5 kilometer ride through the woods, we arrived at the motor road and followed it until Aru. On way, we came across a flock of sheep with the Gaddis herding them from behind. The view of snow caps in front and riding slowly with the cattle flock was such a fascinating experience!

 

Following flock of sheep with Gaddis

 

Hitting main road after a forested short cut

 

It took us almost half a day to reach Aru valley, taking intermediate breaks on way. We made our way through a narrow hillside road, closely resembling a green serpent, through the dense conifers, Kashmiri villages, mountain streams and finally a pitch road which ended at the grasslands of Aru – all the way keeping Lidder River on our left. The gurgling sound of the stream, whistling cedars tuned with horse neighs created a mystic charm altogether.

 

Melting glaciers on way

 

Reaching Aru Valley

 

 

Aru is one of the smallest hamlets in the Kashmir valley located in Anantnag District of Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. Circumscribed by appealing snow peaks and lakes, its scenic grasslands offer a splendid view of the Himalayas. Mt. Kolahoi can be clearly seen on a cloudless morning. The trek of Kolahoi Glacier (the largest glacier in Kashmir Valley) starts right from here. Aru’s Lidderwat also serves as the base camp of Tarsar-Marsar hike and Vishansar-Kishansar trek, twin lakes at an altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level.

 

Landscape of the grasslands of Aru

 

We reached there by 12 noon. The village lies on the left bank of Aru River, a tributary of Lidder. Lush green meadows surrounded by glittering snow covered mountains on all sides, sparsely located thatched roof huts with horses grazing on the natural carpet – that’s what describes Aru in one sentence. Luckily it was a bright sunny morning, temperature somewhere around 12 degrees. Humidity was relatively low as per our horse guide which brightened the nature further. While taking random snaps, noticed a huge talking crowd in front of Fimi Hotel. We assumed, the mob must be circling some celebrity, but did not comprehend the exact topic of discussion though.

 

Mysterious Mas Mobbing in Aru

 

Quite tired after a long horse trek, we thought of taking a lunch break at one of those aboriginal shacks. Nowadays, a handful of high-altitude cottages have also come up to offer guests a pleasant stay. However, keeping in mind the geographical gorgeousness of the place, any artificial luxury will fall short.

 

Lunch break at Aru’s roadside shack

 

While we were waiting for our food to get served, a strange thing happened with us. The person whom we assumed to be a celeb, was passing by the shack. As he noticed us taking his snaps, he entered the shop and approached us with a smile. Though we could not recognize him by face, but from the excited crowd trailing him it was not difficult to gauge his honcho status in Aru.

 

Mass mobbing following us

 

A ponywala introduced him as one of the local millionaires who recently joined politics. But appearance wise, he can any day throw a strong competition to our super-hot Bollywood stars. For the next fifteen minutes, we had a cordial conversation with him regarding the kind of hospitality, natural beauty and ambiance of Aru. While leaving, he warmly requested us to encourage our statesmen to pay more visits to this green valley which will help creating better employment for the locales.

 

Walk around the valley

 

After a decent meal, we took a walk around the valley, clicked handful of lifetime photographs and enjoyed selfies with the sleeping horses before riding back.

 

Valley view

 

Mt. Kolahoi peak as seen from Aru

 

Having narrated the spectacular diorama of Aru, only aspect which seemed somewhat unmatching at the backdrop of nature’s bounty was the forceful attitude of local horsemen who, to certain extent, force tourists to take their horse rides from the designated Aru tourist spot to different nearby trekking routes. The Government approved rate chart, though defined and clearly displayed on board, are hardly followed on folly grounds like low visitor footfalls, old rate chart not updated, heavy weight of travelers, recent inflation, poor horse owner, unfed horses etc.

 

 

To be brutally honest, the horse ride from Pahalgam to Aru, 12 kilometres upstream along Lidder through the Overa Biosphere Reserve was more alluring than the destination itself. The name of our horse was Tumba, not sure what it means in Kashmiri language, but it was a sweet company beyond doubt. Her gentle tail scrubs, wild body odour and love kicks added an adventurous touch to our Aru expedition. Though we are not adventure sports buff, but Aru can be a wonderful host for skiing, heliskiing, paragliding and river rafting buffs. For leisure travelers, it can contest for one of the best nature camp, trout fishing and valley trotting centres.

 

Back to our hotel in Pahalgam

 

By evening, we were back to our hotel in Pahalgam. Having light dinner with Tandoori Roti and Mixed Veg, I jumped into the depth of my dreams under a cozy woolen blanket – getting ready to proceed to our next destination Hagoon in the morning.

Kagyu Thek Chen Ling Monastery of Lava

A personal travel blog by Ms. Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)

 

This Bengali New Year, we planned a trip to Lava – a charming hill station in the Eastern belt of Greater Himalayas, around 38 kilometres from Kalimpong. It serves as the gateway to Neora Valley National Park, the oldest bio-reserve of India. Though height of Lava is only 7200 feet, yet its climate has a frosty touch round the year. Packing woollen mittens on a midsummer day, we headed to our next trip.

 

Glimpse of Lava from Kagyu Thek Chen Ling Monastery

 

Located at a distance of 100 odd kilometres from New Jalpaiguri, it took us almost 5 and half hours by road to reach Lava including short breaks on way. Usually it’s a 4 hours’ drive but due to some road closures near Gorubathan, we had to take a longer route via Mangpoo.

 

Road trip to Lava via Mangpoo

 

Due to a landslide at Kalijhora, the road had become even narrower fleeting one way traffic at a time. Untimely rains spoiled it all. Road clearance work was in progress but we lost significant time there. Nevertheless, our driver maintained the highest possible gear till 9th Mile where we took our first break. Time was around 2pm. Being a regular traveller in this circuit, we now prefer to stop at unconventional joints to avoid tourist rush.

 

Quick break near 9th Mile

 

Passing through Kalimpong 

 

Another attraction of 9th Mile is an unglamorous lollypop distributor. There’s a small shop near the bus stop which in my views, produces Kalimpong’s best lollypop. They often invite me to visit their main factory which is somewhere down the same hill. But due to time constraints, I could not make it possible yet. Promising every time, next time sure, we leave with a bag of lollypops. The old vendor only smiles.

Kalimpong special Lollypop*

(*Image sourced from internet)

Many do not know there is an indigenous variety of soft candy on a stick, locally famous as lollypop, is produced in this part of north Bengal. It is traditionally made of dense yak milk and natural sweeteners. Both the taste and aroma of this so called lollypop are very unique and I never found anything similar anywhere else in India or abroad so far. Kalimpong may now ponder to claim a Geographical Indication for its lollypop if not done already.

 

Way to Lava from 9th Mile

 

From 9th Mile, we took the road towards Lava. We reached in one and half hours. The April weather was pretty cold, seemingly, it may duly receive snow in winter. The greenery also changed with the change in meteorological conditions and altitude. The forested stretch of Lava comprised of Rhododendron, Cardamom, Himalayan Thysanolaena grass (phool jhadu), Sal, Oak, Himalayan bamboo, variety of wild Orchids and Ferns, Pine, Cedars, Fir, Birch and endangered animal species, thus often referred as Dhupi (colloquial word meaning ‘dense leafy forest’).

 

Jungle drive through Neora Valley forested stretch

 

There is nothing much in the Lava town except an ancient Buddhist monastery, a small mall road market, Samybiong Tea Estate, Neora valley Interpretation Centre and a Clock Tower surrounded by dense Himalayan forest on all sides. Due to its strategic geographical placement it serves as a very important juncture for the tourists.

 

Momo break at the fringes of Neora Valley forest

 

By the time we reached Lava, sun had already started descending. The central Clock Tower needle indicated half past three. Half the market was closed due to afternoon time. A decent halt at Lava Bazaar was a must have as our stomachs were badly craving for food. Therefore, we decided to break for lunch first and then proceed to hotel check-in.

 

Road drive to Lava

 

There were only a handful of restaurants around and luckily one of them was open – Hotel Geetanjali. Basically a budget lodge but the signboard read that it also serves authentic Bengali food. Thus we decided to put up for a night here. With an octogenarian Brahmin widow accompanying us in the daring road journey, nothing could have been a better stopover. The manager himself came along as we alighted in front of the gate. The restaurant was closing by then when we arrived but it was very cordial of him to offer us food. A Bengali himself, the elderly manager helped us to settle down after the dusty long drive, carefully took down our rice meal order and offered to take rest in his cabin if needed. That was so kind of him.

 

Reaching Lava

 

Lava Bazaar

 

Since he had to prepare food afresh, the waiting time would be more than usual. So, he advised us to visit the Lava Kagyu Thek Chen Ling Monastery on opposite side of the road in the meantime. With no snub, we accepted his proposal at once. Leaving the senior citizens in his custody, we carried on.

 

It was hardly fifty steps away from the hotel on the fringe of Neora Valley National Park. The road through the Lava marketplace was very steep for a walk, falling sharply down towards the monastery side. The closed market facilitated an easier walk. The weather being cloudy, we thoroughly enjoyed the misty trail.

 

Steep Roads around Lava Marketplace

 

Misty trail to Lava Monastery

 

The main entrance was brightly painted in blue and decorated with traditional Buddhist frescoes. It is located on top of a small hill inside the gate. We had to constantly ascend for fifteen minutes to reach the top. It was such a spiritual bliss. A bright red building richly decorated with golden porticoes and curved facades on all sides. The colourful wall paintings evident even through the clouds soothed our eyes.

 

Afternoon Walk to Lava Monastery

 

Biodiversity at Lava

 

The evening prayer preparations had already started by then. Small children, monks and resident students all dressed in maroon attires were busy gathering at the prayer hall. The ghee lamp inside was burning with its solemn divinity. Spending a short span, we started walking back. We really yearned to spend more time at this holy paradise but time was chasing us hard.

 

Trek to Monastery

 

 

Prayer Hall

 

Residential building of the monks

 

Trek back to hotel

 

Lunch was ready by the time we came back – hot and fresh. Sumptuous in true sense! We decided to retire for the day and prepare for our onward destination next day.

 

 Sunset at Lava

 

An Attic Stay in Kolbong Forest of Kolakham

A personal travel blog by Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)



 

Kolakham is a virgin hill station with an average altitude of 6500 feet above sea level, inside Neora valley National Park on the foothills of Eastern Himalayas. We got to know about the place from a travel magazine. The captivating photographs were imperative to plan our next trip to Kolakham.

 

 

Last summer we spent a weekend there, spending splendid moments in the lap of Kolbong forest, the oldest Reserve Forest of the country rich in biodiversity, flora and fauna. Located at a distance of around 125 kilometres from Siliguri, it took us almost 7 and half hours by road to reach Kolakham due to unprecedented delays enroute.

 

This time we were travelling in a family of four and preferred to book a decent hatchback through a tour operator near Siliguri bus stop. But when we communicated our destination to the driver he immediately refused to accept the duty. As per him, a 4*4 SUV was the only possible four-wheeler to risk the last seven kilometre jungle drive through the Kolbong range of Neora Valley National Park. Needless to say, from the journey time itself, one may guess the road conditions in this route. In addition, the weather was very cloudy since previous night. It was mid-June, not an ideal season for this circuit of course and the possibility of rains made it even worse.

 

Kalimpong Mall Road

 

After a hassled start, we finally commenced our journey from Darjeeling More taxi stand at quarter past ten in the morning. Due to a landslide near Kalimpong, the road had become extremely narrow passing single way traffic at a time. From the district town, we took the route of Algarah towards Kolakham.

 

Algarah to Kolakham road trip

 

The road conditions for next 30 kilometres were satisfactory to cover in one and half hours. Kolakham was just 7 kilometres from here but the drive was the most difficult of all. We were at the entrance of Neora Valley National Park and Kolakham village is located within the verdant forest. As per our driver, though it’s just a few kilometres, it would take at least an hour to reach our hotel. There was no proper motorway inside the Kolbong forest. Only loose boulders are being laid for cars to traverse. Also, we were struggling against time because the road is not advisable for night drives. Not only natural risk, there could be wildlife attacks as well.

 

Entry gate of Kolbong Range – Neora Valley National Park

 

The network connectivity of Kolakham is usually poor and it got proved when we failed to contact our hotel in any way. We kept trying multiple times as I badly wanted to check if lunch could be arranged so late. On the other hand, a break was a must have so as to ease our driver for the remaining strenuous stretch. Therefore, we decided to have our lunch and then proceed for the final drive with full energy.

 

Way through the forest

 

It was already 5pm, high time to complete the road trip – the toughest drive ahead. Since there are no shops or ATM at Kolakham, we parcelled two big bottles of mineral water and dispensed emergency cash from the market. Keeping the monastery on our left, we took the road entering straight into the Neora Valley National Park. Within five minutes, the road disappeared and what we were left with were only boulders and thick forest all around – evidently we had entered the Kolbong range. It was going to be a natural blend of forest safari. Morning rains had made it so slippery that even an experienced hand was also missing a few times. The skidding sound of the wheel and our driver’s reactions made the difficulty too evident.

 

 

 

Due to the tall trees and unusual density at this part of Neora Valley forest, dusk light could hardly pierce through the foliage. The only source of light was the headlight. Now we could realize why the driver was so frustrated with our late start. Nocturnal tryst with wildlife wasn’t unforeseen. Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, Malayan Giant Squirrel, Black Bear, Musk Deer, Himalayan Monal etc are common residents of Kolbong range.

 

We did notice some movements behind the bushes and a dark fluffy bird incidentally crossed the road. Its speed was so high we could not see clearly what it was, probably Monal. Also the visibility was very poor. Nothing much could be seen against the headlight other than the rocky boulders.

 

 

At a distance, we could also hear the sound of an unknown animal, might be a barking deer’s call. It is said, the leader of any barking deer horde gives a loud call when it senses any carnivore around. My husband also reminded, a few years back even traces of Royal Bengal Tiger were also evidenced by the forest department. Sweats perspired even in the prevailing chills. As I pulled up the glass window, others too followed my action.

 

 

For the next thirty minutes, with complete stillness all of us were silently counting seconds as the motor vehicle slowly made its way through the woods. Undoubtedly, the natural sound mix of whistling cedars, wild cricket, chirping birds coupled with the motor noise created a mystic milieu. The perfect set to shoot a dark horror film.

 

Our hotel – Kolakham Retreat

 

‘Kolakham Retreat’ was the name of the hotel where we had booked our stay via Spring Vale Resorts group. It had become totally dark when we reached. Quarter past six here was as good as dinner time. It was not a proper hotel of course, neither a tree house. Small attic style wooden cottages facing north and a double storey concrete building – that’s all. We did not find any resort staffs as such. A Nepali family residing at the ground floor of the building took care of our needs during the stay. The Kolakham village is inhabited by sixty odd Nepali families of Rai origin and the caretakers too might belong to the same fraternity.

Attic style wooden cottages

 

As we alighted from the SUV, a mid-aged lady showed the way to our room K-7. We had booked the deluxe four bedded family room which was on the first floor. Luckily there was electricity when we arrived. Generally after sunset, there are instances of long power cuts in Kolbong forest. Chilly winds, forest stay, and dusty long drive – the combination demanded a round of hot tea and yummy munchies. Thankfully, the Nepali lady did not let us down. She agreed to serve the snacks immediately.

 

Our room K-7

 

We had to take a flight of steps to go to our room. Since it was double sized deluxe accommodation, there was only one room on first floor. Others were in cottages down below the slope. The backside of our building was open forest and to our sheer wonder there were no protections as such. The staircase was open on all sides with only a roof to prevent dews. Encountering a leopard or bear at night would not be absurd as the stairs might provide them a comfortable shade. The very ecstasy of adventure thrilled us, though not the seniors in family.

 

Night fall at Kolakham

 

Nestled amidst dense Neora Valley Kolbong Range at night was in itself a very exhilarating experience. The complimentary unpredictability made it more euphoric. The room was quite big with two double beds in a row. The attached toilet was clean. The overall quality was pretty average, more of a budget stay at the price of luxury – though quite justified at such a remote corner. The best part of the apartment was its open balcony. They said it faces north, so in the morning, if the clouds mercy us we would be able to see the snow caps right from our room.

 

After finishing tea, we had just reclined a bit when a loud knock on the door frightened us all. The slam continued without a pause and the strokes went harder as we took time to respond. My husband called out twice but his voice fainted behind the bangs. Any emergency? A dacoit attack? A ghost? Or some wild animal? Why banging so abnormally? Will it break the door? Thousand questions fizzed on our eyes. A weak door lock was the total protection. My husband was preparing to give a fight if the door breaks.

 

As we took time to open the door eyeing each other, a female voice came from downstairs, probably from the balcony side. I rushed out to check. It was the caretaker’s wife calling us at the top of her voice. Could not imagine such a frightening situation will be the outcome of a hilarious reason. She wanted to know if we were ready for dinner and to ask that she had sent one of her family members upstairs to knock us. An old dwarf, probably deaf too, was on the other side of the door.

 

The mysterious old dwarf

 

Dinner was served by 8pm and the village appeared dead by nine. Scarcely any traces of light could be seen, except a couple on the opposite hills. Chilly clouds poked us through the thin cracks on glass windows and wooden walls. A snoring sleep under double blankets was beckoning.

 

Birds of Kolakham

 

 

My eyes opened at the chirping of birds, a golden gleam of sunlight was touching my feet. Time was six in the morning. Had such a relaxing sleep after very long time. City hassles have killed our solace so much that barely any day begins without an alarm now.

 

Peeping through the open balcony

 

Opening the balcony door, I peeped outside. Oh what a fresh morning it was! The peaks were unfortunately not visible but the freshness of the air cleansed all fatigue. That was exactly the refreshment my heart was craving for.

 

Morning view of Kolbong Forest and Kolakham from room

 

There were a beautiful natural spring nearby popularly known as Changey Falls but there was no motorable road to reach by car. The only option was jungle hike of 5 kilometres. Keeping the family construct in mind, it was definitely not suitable for this time. But we all took a stroll around the untainted forest of Kolakham. The glimpse of Neora River from a natural view point was entrancing. Apart from our hotel, there were few more in vicinity, however the count of tourists seemed very less. Most of the lodges were of homestay type except ours.

 

Jungle hike in Kolbong

 

Next day was our check out. A leisure struck weekend detoxed our mundane weariness of metro life as we felt fully rejuvenated for the comeback. Mighty Himalayas did not disappoint us. On the third day, a mesmerizing view of the snow peaks completed our Kolakham stay. Mt. Kabru South & North, Kabru Dome, Talung, Kanchenjunga East & West and Pandim could be seen clearly.

 

View of snow peaks from our balcony

 

Kolakham, as they say, is truly an exemplary destination to experience wilderness amidst alpine beauty from a sheer proximity. A cloudless sky overlooking the evergreen valleys, coniferous forest, exotic wildlife and snow glaciers make it a perfect hotspot for nature lovers, star gazers, birdwatchers and adventure seekers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Night with the Ghosts of Morgan House

A personal travel blog by Reetwika Banerjee

(Connect with her on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/reetwika.banerjee)


‘Morgan House’ is quite recognized amongst Indian tourists as one of the most haunted rest houses from British era. Built on black granite stone with costly wooden interiors, it is now a Government owned bungalow located atop the Durpindara hill near Kalimpong. The main town is around three kilometres from here, mostly surrounded by cantonment area on three sides and a landscaped garden facing the Himalayas in north.

 

 

Glimpse of Morgan House

 

It is often said that in the first floor room no 103 of Morgan House, lodgers come across eerie happenstances with a womanly spirit, supposedly that of Lady Morgan’s who was found dead under mysterious conditions in the same room a century ago. And the very legend thrilled us to book the same room for a night out.

 

Yes you read it correct – this year we planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary at this haunted British bungalow in the landlady’s favourite bedroom.

 

Drive from Bagdogra to Morgan House via Teesta Bazar

 

 

It took us around 3.5 hours (around 80 kilometres) to reach from Bagdogra including a quick momo break at Teesta Bazar. We preferred to hire a direct drop than to break at Kalimpong town and again hunt for a private taxi. It did cost us more but worth the additional bucks.

 

Momo Break at Teesta Bazar

 

At present Morgan House is managed by WB tourism department and our room was booked through their online reservation system. Earlier it was known as Singamari Tourist Lodge, later renamed to Morgan House in memory of the well-off British couple post a series of name changes.

 

Way to 9th Mile

 

After crossing 9th Mile, we reached Kalimpong town. From the central bus stand, we took the uphill road towards Chandraloke. Upon reaching the entrance, we followed the driveway to Reception.

 

Main Entrance

 

Front side of Morgan House

 

A beautiful lady of mid thirtees greeted us inside. The overall staff behaviour did not appeal us but the atmosphere filled our heart with immediate solitude and that perhaps justifies its immense popularity in cine world.

 

Key to “haunted” Room No 103 of Morgan House

 

Inside view of Lady Morgan’s “haunted” room (presently Room No 103)

 

There are a total of seven rooms rented out to tourists. I was very excited to get into our room – No 103, the room where Lady Morgan’s corpse was discovered under utterly cryptic circumstances during 1940s. A beautifully planned apartment in first floor by the grand wooden staircase, a narrow hanging balcony clad with ivy and wisterias, inside there’s an ancient fireplace towards southern wall, stone chimneys on top, facing the backside garden in west, large iron windows on the remaining walls – all what defines Lady Morgan’s haunted bedroom, alias today’s room no 103 of Morgan House. The maintenance did not appear great, but the heritage aspect compensated for all the amenity centric shortcomings.

 

Grand wooden staircase in front of Lady Morgan’s mysterious room

 

Hanging balcony clad with ivy and stone chimneys on top

 

Backside Garden

 

We were utterly hungry after a strenuous journey and hence despite the spooky feeling, an immediate meal was the need of the hour. After a gastronomic feat, we thought of taking a walk around the building.

 

Main exit of Morgan House

 

 

We could figure out three exit points – one opens to the main road through which we had drove in, the other one was just diagonally opposite towards the cantonment side and the third one led us to a series of newly built cottages after a ten minute shadowy walk through the pine forest.

Walk through the mysterious pine woods

 

The walk was indeed enjoyable adding a mystic touch but we were utterly disappointed at its unexpected culmination. Needless to say, we were expecting to end up losing our way amidst the greens but the modern concrete constructions spoiled the prevailing obscurity. Later from the security guard got to know that years ago it used to be a private retreat of the queen of Bhutan, but after India’s independence, the property was handed over to the state government for renovation and since then WB tourism department has been supervising it. Those rooms can also be booked online through the same website as Morgan House.

 

Renovated residence of Queen of Bhutan on the other side of the walk

 

Opposite to the main entrance, there is an army golf course, as per the plaque it is identified as the most scenic golf course of the country inaugurated in the year of 1973 at a height of 4400 feet above sea level.

 

Country’s most scenic golf course opposite Morgan House

 

The idea of constructing this quaint golf bed was conceived by Major General Dalbir Singh and Lieutenant Colonel CF Hamilton. The course spreads across 3652 yards with 64 pars and nine holes (twelve greens). Though entry is banned for civilians, tourists can take a break at the adjoining Watershed View Point which also offers an attached south Indian pure vegetarian canteen. With a cup of filter coffee we relished the surreal beauty with occasional glimpses of Kalimpong town, Relli valley, Labha monastery, Kapher and Deolo hills in different directions.

 

Way to Kalimpong Environmental Park and Training Area

 

A minute’s walk from this view point lays the Kalimpong Environmental Park and Training Area of the army. Designated by a big arched gate, it also serves as a picturesque view point. Beyond it, the road is closed for outsiders. By the time we came back to Morgan House it was 3pm.

 

Way back to Morgan House

 

The view of the stone chimneys from the garden side at the backdrop of setting sun was brilliant. We could hear an unknown bird’s call coming from a distance. The gorgeous lawn chairs beckoned us for another round of hot beverage. Relishing a cup of steaming Darjeeling tea, we waited for the sunset and welcome the lady ghost.

 

Morgan House at dusk

 

Garden Chairs beckoned us for a cup of Darjeeling tea

 

The orange radiance of dusk reflected through the glass panes of Lady Morgan’s library, now converted to a guest lounge. It was in the ground floor right beside the reception. Before calling it a day, we thought of spending a few moments and no regret for the decision made.

 

Lady Morgan’s Library

 

It was so beautifully maintained – the stone charcoal fireplace, bookshelves, reading table with recliner (all modern furniture though), antique lampshades, chandelier, glass paned metal windows, assorted mix of old and new books – overall a classy place indeed. It was right here the affluent British couple used to throw expensive parties to their friends. However, I could not find Lady Morgan’s favourite piano anywhere, must admit I was really longing to see it around. Anyway, we could well imagine the Morgan couple’s romantic taste from their very artistic creations which withstood the testament of ages.

 

Stone charcoal fireplace

 

Gigantic glass windows of the library

 

Antique Chandelier

 

One of the walls bore the celebrity guest testimonials framed in wooden mounts and the list includes big shots from Bollywood and Tollywood like Utpal Dutta, Nargis Sunil Dutt, Om Prakash, Kishore Kumar Amit Kumar and Leena Chandravarkar. We could not stop nosing into the one signed by Uttam Kumar and Supriya Devi who stayed here for a night on 29th November 1976.

 

Testimonials by celebrity guests of Morgan House

 

Just above this library was Mr. Morgan’s living room and beside that was his lady’s bedroom. Spending over an hour, we headed towards the room upstairs. Time will be close to 6pm. I was a step ahead of my husband. While climbing up the wooden stairs, both of us could clearly hear the tapping sound of a pencil heeled shoe coming from just a floor above us – finding nothing unnatural, we kept ascending. Doubts stumped when I did not find anyone in the wooden corridor above. I immediately looked down in surprise and it didn’t surpass my husband’s eye.

 

Climbing up the grand wooden staircase

 

Where did the sound vanish? I was just halfway down the stairs and it did not take me more than two minutes to reach the first floor. Also, from the apparent circumstances, it did not seem that any of the other room doors were open just a while ago. In majority of the rooms, lights were off – either the guests were out or they were unoccupied. So, where did the lady go? Was she Lady Morgan? Oh, did we miss her by a whisker?

 

 

Unlike the season, surrounding climatic conditions forced us to get a room heater to beat the untimely cold. Clouds were forming and so chances of mountain sighting in the morning were getting bleak. Busy in discussing our day’s experiences so far, I opened my laptop to look for the haunted story of Morgan House. My husband preferred to surf through his favourite sports channels than to accompany me in my search. Thanks to the Wi-Fi connection, I landed up on quite a few pages where her spiritual existence is cited but no one could tell me the exact story of the couple’s sudden disappearance.

 

 

And then there was a massive power cut. Complete darkness outside. The white glare of my laptop screen was the only spoiler. As we looked outside the windows, the well-lit garden was already engulfed by the clouds. There was not a drop of light in the vicinity. Far away, through the dense pines on the opposite hill, few dim lights could be seen. What a mystic ambiance!

 

In today’s technology dominated world, couples hardly get such an undisturbed spell of time to enjoy their togetherness. Closing the artificial source of light, we slowly walked towards the bed, reclined our bodies, slipped into the blanket and started gossiping. He was on my left. I was reclining towards window side of the bed, both of us facing the fireplace in front.

 

Frightening each other with ghost stories, we kept waiting for the womanly spirit loudly imagining the cold fireplace inside our room to suddenly catch fire like that by Simon’s ghost, stone chimneys to release charcoal smokes and so on. But alas, nothing happened like that – neither it was Mr. Brown’s bungalow not there was anyone like Simon.

 

As we were chitchatting, my husband sporadically kept brushing my right feet with his toes – though I did not like the feeling, I ignored for the first few times. But as he kept repeating it with increasing frequency and pressure, I expressed my dislike and asked him to stop. My left leg was slightly in touch with his body so when I said, “Stop that please”, he did not react much but moved away a bit. But again in sometime when he repeated it, I was little annoyed this time. Expressing my irritation I clearly said, “Stop it, I said naa”. With a strange voice he said, “What? I am not doing anything.” Then I gently tapped him with my right feet and said, “Isn’t that you?” The touch was not like a normal warm blooded human body. It was too soft and uncharacteristically cold. He said, yes thinking that I was referring to my left feet casually touching his leg. I still could not believe what was waiting for us next. I tapped back harder with my right feet and raised my voice with sheer surprise, “Is this really you?” Now, my husband too could sense the gravity of the situation and at once removed the blanket clung over our body. Believe me, there was nothing touching my right feet. My husband’s toes were too far to touch my right side of the body. Hardly could they brush my left side. Just then the power came.

 

Room lights on, steams slowly coming out of the heater blades, TV’s red LED gleaming again and the garden too was brightened by the lamps. A feminine shadowy escape through the pines did not miss my sight. A weird smell inside the room forced us to open the windows in the prevailing chilliness. Shortly after, an ear piercing dinner call brought us back to normality.

 

The in-house restaurant was on ground floor. We chose the same table where we had taken our lunch in the morning. For supper I had ordered his favourites – chicken broth, chow-chow and chili chicken. The same waiter served the food but unlike lunch we kept absolutely mum, absentmindedly playing with the forks. The steaming yummy food was slowly getting cold. We did not realize that the old cook was observing our unusual silence from the kitchen. There was another family who were also having their dinner. After they left, the old man politely asked me, “Did she scare you my lady?” Together, we were stunned at his query. Is the haunted tag of Morgan House really true? The timeworn lips narrated us the story behind creepy haunts of the mansion.

 

Chow Chow at dinner

 

Before her marriage, Lady Morgan was a shrewd trader owning acres of indigo plantation in the Dooars region. On a 1927’s winter she got hitched to a wealthy jute merchant named Mr. George Morgan and to commemorate their wedding, the couple had built this luxurious bungalow in British colonial style. The scenic view of the mountains from her room overlooking the green splash was mesmerizing – a perfect abode for newly wedded couples. The lady was very fond of ivy and thus her man specially arranged to import the seeds from London and decorated the entire mansion with freshly bloomed ivy and wisterias.

 

Till 1938, it remained their midsummer retreat where the couple celebrated private parties. Major half of the year they used to spend downhill amidst their indigo and jute plantations, but during scorching summers, the Morgan couple relished the dreamy surroundings at this lavish hideaway.

 

One such night Mr. Morgan was so over drunk that his partying associates exploited the opportunity. They assailed Lady Morgan against her wish in presence of the drunken lord. Next morning when Mr. Morgan realized the severity of damage, he responded very unpredictably to the situation. Surprising everyone, he started abusing the lady insanely blaming to have unlawful desire towards his male acquaintances. In no time, very uncharacteristically, he disowned Lady Morgan as his mistress and started treating her as his kept. With every passing day thereon, life started decaying their marital bond. A sudden change in Mr. Morgan’s attitude towards his wife decayed the remaining feelings.

 

Lady Morgan was left helpless with the overnight change in her man, inhumanely torturing every night. Lady Morgan’s painful screams could often be heard by local villagers but none had the guts to stand against the affluent baron. Only the old warden who used to take care of the mansion during their absence came for her rescue. He was genuinely affectionate to Lady Morgan. The unforeseen fissure in the couple’s conjugal life broadened the way to Hell.

 

Suddenly in the year of 1941, on a winter morning Lady Morgan was found brutally choked in her bedroom and Mr. Morgan went missing, leaving no legal heir. From the prevailing condition of the dead body it seemed that before losing her breath, there had been immense struggle between the assassin and victim. Scratches all over her body were also clearly visible.

 

It was the same old caretaker who discovered Lady Morgan’s corpse and reportedly said that he neither met the couple the previous night nor did they arrive at the daybreak. Ambiguities evolved then from where suddenly her dead body came and it remained a mystery forever. Moreover, no one had seen Mr. Morgan after his strange disappearance, nor was his body discovered ever. Thus gradually with time the mansion earned its ‘haunted’ label. People began spreading gossips that unable to bear her pains, the old warden must have killed the lady to free her from the devil’s clutch. Posthumously it was Lady Morgan’s displeased spirit in the house who must have engulfed her vicious husband’s body.

 

As per our cook, whosoever stays in the room (No 103 as per modern indexing), she knocks them seeking for help and let the world know about her sad story. Boarders often misunderstand that as a scary activity and spread the ghost stories about Morgan House.

 

Old cook’s abnormally luminous eyes while narrating Lady Morgan’s uncanny demise left us with an equally uncanny feeling. Was he trying to convince us that Lady Morgan’s spirit is innocent? That she needs our help and does not want to scare us? That the old caretaker wasn’t a slayer rather he relieved the poor lady from extreme agony?

 

Strangely, given a thought, we did not remember seeing the old cook throughout the day anywhere in the campus, neither at restaurant. An icy chill ran down our spine imagining a ghost in him. Enough dose of adventure had already sunk in. We preferred to finish our dinner fast and retire for the night.